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Jair Jurrjens: Lucky SOB, the New Matt Cain, or Both?

First, he was an unknown commodity, the kid with the funny name from the same little country as Andruw Jones.

Then he was the guy who got traded, after a sluggish cup of coffee in the big leagues, for Edgar Renteria.

Then he was the so-so peripherals guy, a pitcher who flashed low ERAs but seemed destined for a reckoning, given his lack of swing-and-miss stuff.

Then he was the injuries guy, suffering hamstring and knee injuries and eventually requiring surgery to fix the problem.

Even today, mlbdepthcharts.com lists him as the number-four starter on a second-place team.

Yet recently — in just the past few days, in fact — he’s gone from afterthought in the minds of most, to borderline superstar. Today, the narrative is, “That Halladay guy stinks, let’s start Jair Jurrjens in the All-Star Game instead.”

First, the superficial stuff: Jurrjens leads the National League in wins, winning percentage and ERA (12-3, 1.89). In an Atlanta Braves rotation that was supposed to be anchored by veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe and led long-term by Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens has been arguably better than all of them this season.

Jurrjens has always adept at doing what pitchers are supposedly paid to do: prevent runs. His Koufaxian run this year has dropped his career ERA to 3.24. That would be fourth on Baseball-Reference.com’s active leaderboard (third among starters) if Jurrjens met the 1000-inning minimum.

Of course we know the drill by now. When a starting pitcher sports a career strikeout rate just over 6/9 IP, owns a K/BB rate a tick better than 2/1, and isn’t an exceptional groundball-inducer (44.8% GB), we raise a skeptical eyebrow, and wait for the Regression Fairy to pay a visit.

That type of broad-stroke analysis ignores the possibility of outliers, though. And outliers do exist. Matt Cain‘s 3.42 career ERA is significantly better than his 3.75 career FIP. It’s way, way better than his career 4.27 xFIP. Dave Cameron has waged a quixotic struggle to try and solve the mystery of Giants pitchers and their aberrant home run-to-flyball rates, with Cain the poster boy for this weirdness. Cameron couldn’t find a single, no-doubter of a reason, nor could Giants’ pitching coach, Dave Righetti.

One of the issues I’ve always struggled to understand when it comes to DIPS theory is how to deal with pitchers who induce weak contact. Don’t they exist? They seem to exist. Isn’t it possible that a pitcher could sport merely decent strikeout rates, put the ball in the air a fair bit, and still succeed — assuming he mixes pitches and location well enough and keeps batters off-balance?

It’s possible that Jurrjens is the new Matt Cain. He certainly is in the sense that his ERAs routinely crush his fielding-independent numbers. And he’s taken it to another level this year. His strikeout rate has actually fallen significantly to 5.29/9 IP this year. A corresponding drop in his walk rate to just over two per 9 IP helps a lot. But it doesn’t fully explain the Jurrjens Experience. As Christina Kahrl noted at ESPN.com, Jurrjens hasn’t just limited his home runs allowed; he’s kept extra-base hits in general to a minimum, with an ISO allowed of just .083.

Part of that could certainly be luck or random variance. But it may well be that Jurrjens is one of those pitchers who legitimately creates weak contact, apparently more so this year than ever before. Jonny Venters taught him a two-seam fastball, which Jurrjens has used to great effect (as if we needed another example of Jonny Venters‘ greatness). Jurrjens still isn’t generating as many groundballs as you’d expect a two-seam fastball pitcher to produce. Meanwhile, going away from the four-seamer has netted a nearly two-mile-per-hour drop in his average fastball (which could help explain part of the drop in K rate). The weak-contact theory isn’t reflected in a higher pop-up rate either; at 6.8%, it’s tied for the lowest mark of his career.

The elephant in the room is BABIP — the hand-wave explanation we like to use when a pitcher does great things for hard-to-understand reasons. And yes, at .256, Jurrjens is allowing fewer balls in play to drop than even the league-wide dip in BABIP can fully explain. That’s 44 points lower than Jurrjens’ 2010 figure, though not wildly out of line with his career .278 mark.

So we’re left wondering. This being the start of the SABR convention, we didn’t have time to do extensive HitTracker sleuthing and similar research to pin down exactly what kind of contact Jurrjens is inducing and whether or not it’s sustainable. Hopefully Team Dave Allen can pick up the torch and check it out.

It might be that Jurrjens is a lucky SOB having his day in the sun. But I’m not quite ready to just say that and move on.